Senator Collins–you’re no Margaret Chase Smith

Tuesday’s Bangor Daily News had a front-page story on Senator Collins once again praising Senator Margaret Chase Smith, whose seat Collins occupies, as her personal model of a “trailblazing lawmaker.” Repeating the same rhetoric that Collins has used since entering the Senate in 1997, rhetoric that will surely be repeated further during her upcoming re-election campaign, voters are supposed to be deeply impressed with Collins’ own superior leadership. I don’t buy that.

To her credit, Senator Collins has brought lots of funds to the University of Maine over the years–something that her long-time fellow Senator, Olympia Snowe, almost never did. Ironically, Snowe graduated from the University of Maine, where Collins graduated from St. Lawrence University.

Moreover, Senator Collins maintains an extremely reliable staff in both Maine and Washington, DC, and is extremely attentive to constituent services. One’s party affiliation doesn’t affect the courtesy and assistance of her staff.

Furthermore, Senator Collins’s staff responds to constituent questions about policy matters quickly but also fully. Ask her a question requiring more than a simple answer and expect a helpful detailed reply.

To Senator Collins’ further credit, for those of us who believe that the State of Israel deserves to continue to exist and that, contrary to the American Studies Association and other hate-filled academic bodies in the U.S., Canada, and Britain, it is not the worst country in the world, Collins has been a strong voice in support of Israel.

But Collins is hardly the inspiring leader that both Republican William Cohen, her immediate predecessor, and Democrat George Mitchell, Cohen’s fellow Senator, were in their respective Senate years. Last week’s speech by Cohen in Portland on Martin Luther King Day, a speech that examined  the prejudice that Cohen himself experienced growing up in Bangor decades ago, reflected the quality of mind that made Cohen a highly respected leader in Bangor, in the U.S. House, in the U.S. Senate, and finally in the Defense Department. I cannot imagine Collins offering anything but cliches about growing up in The County and enjoying a rural childhood.

Nor can I imagine Collins risking the rebuke of the Republican Party by coming out against a sitting President of the same party, as Cohen did as a first-term U.S. Representative during the impeachment debates and votes in the Richard Nixon Presidency. God forbid that Collins should ever tarnish her self-righteous “moderate” image.

Nor, of course, can I imagine Collins taking the more courageous stance against another Senator that Margaret Chase Smith did in her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech condemning the excesses of both the House Un-American Activities Committee and the fanatic anti-Communist Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Self-proclaimed “moderates” don’t do this kind of thing.

Collins usually plays it safe, usually votes “progressively” on issues that reflect majority opinion in Maine, such as opposition to abortion restrictions and in favor of non-controversial environmental protection laws.  When she does take a strong stand, it is invariably for legislation that benefits the wealthiest Mainers and Americans overall, such as her passionate embrace of eliminating the inheritance tax.

When  Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in the mid-1990s, Collins was chair of a Senate subcommittee that might have investigated the growing number of incidents in which Humvees failed to protect many American soldiers in Iraq  because of inadequate conversion from civilian to military vehicles. Despite pleas from families and friends of American soldiers who might have escaped injury or death from attacks on Humvees, Collins refused to hold hearings. Heaven forbid that Republican President (and frequent Maine visitor) George W. Bush might get criticized. To my knowledge, nothing was done to improve Humvees until the Democrats regained control of Congress.

When Democratic Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen debated Republican Indiana Senator Dan Qualye during the 1988 election that put Qualye in the Vice Presidency, Bentsen humiliated Quayle when the latter invoked the late Senator John F. Kennedy as another young Senator who went on to the national stage as, of course, President.  “I knew Jack Kennedy,” the courtly Texan chided Qualye. “I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen continued. “You’re no Jack Kennedy,”

Qualye may have won election, but his public image never recovered from Bentsen’s lines. “Our Senator,” as Collins’  prior election posters and  bumper stickers proclaim, might think about her own public image. Has she really earned the right to put herself on the same pedestal as Maine’s first female Senator?  I think not.